Astronauts piloted jets to resorts, audit shows


WASHINGTON -- Astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston have flown two-seater supersonic jets to Colorado Springs on weekends during ski season as well as to New Orleans and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., according to NASA's inspector general.

While the astronauts said they were fulfilling the flight time required of them each month, some lawmakers criticized the flights to resort cities, which cost about $2,000 an hour.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who is chairman of the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Government Regulation and Information, said the audit, which was prepared by the inspector general and made public in February, raises questions about the purpose of the trips.

"There ought to be more comprehensive regulations and requirements to document the flights that are being taken to make sure they are solely for proficiency training and not personal use," the senator said.

Carla Corcoran, the NASA deputy assistant inspector general who oversaw the audit, conceded that the inspector general's office has no evidence of "joy riding."

Nonetheless, the report noted that NASA does not "monitor and periodically review the justification for flights not directly associated with mission activities." As a result, the office said, the jets "are vulnerable to potential misuse."

Ten- to 12-hour weekend flights on the T-38 Talons, two-seater supersonic training jets, are unproductive, according to some NASA officials and experts outside the space agency.

"The way to get really proficient is to fly a little bit at a time," said Steve Holly, NASA's deputy director of flight crew operations. "To fly 10 or 12 hours that day -- it's very efficient from a time-management standpoint, but it's not the best for training."

Charles J. Searock, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who is executive vice president of AirCorp, an airport development company in New Jersey, agreed with Mr. Holly. "We've proven in our Air Force and in the Israeli air force that many short-duration flights are better because there's more activity."

The space agency requires its pilots to log 15 hours a month of proficiency flying, and most astronauts satisfy their requirements flying near the Johnson Space Center or on daily missions to military bases.

The astronauts did not provide details about the resort flights in their log books.

The inspector general's report suggested that NASA make periodic reviews of log entries and strengthen "internal controls" of all proficiency flights taken overnight or on weekends.

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